Plot Twist at Turner Classic Movies Upsets Film Fans

For many people in Hollywood, including lions like Steven Spielberg, Turner Classic Movies is not a cable channel. It is an extension of their identity.

And it took a beating this week.

On Tuesday, the network, known as TCM, jettisoned its five most-senior executives through a mix of buyouts and pink slips. The departed include: Pola Chagnon, the general manager; Charlie Tabesh, the channel’s lead programmer; Genevieve McGillicuddy, who ran the annual TCM film festival; Anne Wilson, a production executive; and Dexter Fedor, a marketer.

Warner Bros. Discovery, the network’s owner, promised that viewers would see little-to-no change on TCM. The channel will remain free of ads. “We remain fully committed to this business, the TCM brand and its purpose to protect and celebrate culture-defining movies,” Kathleen Finch, chairman and chief content officer for the company’s domestic networks group, wrote in a memo that was shared with news outlets.

But the channel’s loyalists responded to the cuts with hellfire, interpreting them as a further marginalization of an art form and a personal attack.

Our cinemas have been overrun by superheroes. Our film studios have fallen victim to corporate consolidation. FilmStruck, our streaming service for silent-era gems and noir classics, was shut down. And now you are gutting TCM, our last happy place, where Orson Welles is mercifully alive and well and “Key Largo” (1948) still counts as a summer blockbuster?

Using an expletive, Ryan Reynolds sounded an alarm on Twitter, telling his 21 million followers that TCM was a fixture in his life and calling the channel “a holy corner of film history — and a living, breathing library for an entire art form.” Mark Harris, a journalist and film historian, called the cuts “a catastrophic talent purge.” Patton Oswalt, an actor and writer, took direct aim at David Zaslav, the chief executive of Warner Bros. Discovery, cursing him on Twitter and saying, “You couldn’t just leave this one alone?”

Mr. Zaslav routinely describes himself as a colossal fan of classic cinema. He keeps TCM playing in his office, where he proudly works from the same desk used by Jack Warner, one of the studio’s founders. In recent months, Mr. Zaslav, who took over Warner Bros. last year, has been celebrating the studio’s 100th anniversary.

Is it just an act?

By late Wednesday, three Hollywood titans — Mr. Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson — had issued an unusual joint statement saying they had spoken to Mr. Zaslav and were “heartened and encouraged.”

“We are committed to working together to ensure the continuation of this cultural touchstone that we all treasure,” the statement said. “Turner Classic Movies has always been more than just a channel. It is truly a precious resource of cinema, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And while it has never been a financial juggernaut, it has always been a profitable endeavor since its inception.”

The directors added, “We have each spent time talking to David, separately and together, and it’s clear that TCM and classic cinema are very important to him.”

The filmmakers said that Mr. Zaslav, in fact, had privately reached out to them earlier in the week to discuss the restructuring of TCM. “We understand the pressures and realities of a corporation as large as WBD, of which TCM is one moving part,” the directors said. “Our primary aim is to ensure that TCM’s programming is untouched and protected.”

In a business sense, TCM is a financial footnote for Warner Bros. Discovery, a sprawling entertainment conglomerate with roughly 37,000 employees worldwide and $34 billion in annual revenue. But like every other media mogul, Mr. Zaslav is wrestling with a no-win situation: Cable television, which has long powered media conglomerates, is in terminal decline, meaning that operational costs must also go down. Budget cuts have impacted all of the company’s many divisions.

Fewer than 50 million homes will pay for cable or satellite service by 2027, down from 64 million today and 100 million seven years ago, according to a recent PwC report.

So the belt tightening at TCM was more about preservation than annihilation, at least in Warner Bros. Discovery’s view. Ben Mankiewicz, Jacqueline Stewart and the other TCM hosts will continue in their roles, according to a spokeswoman. TCM will continue to pay for access to classic films from all studios; there is no plan to restrict the channel to Warner Bros. movies. TCM will also continue to be featured as a “brand hub” on Max, the company’s streaming service.

Michael Ouweleen, the president of Cartoon Network, among other channels, will oversee TCM going forward. He is based in Atlanta. TCM was previously part of his portfolio on an interim basis.

“Michael shares our passion for classic films and believes strongly in TCM’s essential role in preserving and spotlighting iconic movies for the next generation of cinephiles,” Ms. Finch said in her memo.

Mr. Ouweleen might be smart to remember that, for TCM’s devotees, the network’s programming is less entertainment and more “the stuff that dreams are made of.”

Brooks Barnes is a media and entertainment reporter, covering all things Hollywood. He joined The Times in 2007 as a business reporter focused primarily on the Walt Disney Company. He previously worked for The Wall Street Journal. @brooksbarnesNYT

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